London: British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives have reached a "broad agreement" with the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government, a source told AFP on Thursday, a week after her election fiasco.
The Conservative source said talks with the small Northern Irish party were progressing well as meetings in Downing Street with all of the British province's main political leaders got underway.
Conservatives and the DUP are committed to strengthening British unity, delivering Brexit, combating terrorism, and delivering prosperity but "at the moment there isn't a deal," the source said.
The government meanwhile said the state opening of the Parliament — when May's government presents its legislation programme — will take place on 21 June, two days later than planned.
A Conservative source said this meant the party was "confident" it had enough votes for the programme to be approved after May suffered a disastrous setback in snap elections a week ago that saw her lose her majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, just ahead of crucial Brexit negotiations with Brussels.
The Conservatives, who have 317 MPs, are looking to strike a deal with the DUP, who have 10.
The state opening will be followed by days of parliamentary debate and a confidence vote that will be the first major challenge for the new government.
The prospect of an arrangement between Conservatives and the DUP has caused disquiet, with the DUP's anti-abortion and gay rights stance in the crosshairs.
Though on the surface, Thursday's meeting with Northern Irish parties is aimed at breaking the logjam in forming a new cross-party regional government in the province, May needs broader acceptance of a Conservative-DUP deal.
Some fear the viability of Northern Ireland's fragile peace — which has held since 1998 after decades of inter-community violence known as The Troubles — could rest on the arrangement, with doubts around the UK government's neutrality.
Questions of trust
"The main concern is going to be that if there is a Conservative-DUP deal, then can the British government continue to play the role of an honest broker in the restoration of a Northern Ireland executive?" said Simon Usherwood, senior politics lecturer at Surrey University.
"The risk is that Northern Ireland continues to fail to find solutions, and potentially the peace process unwinds," he told AFP.
The 1998 peace accords in Northern Ireland set up a power-sharing agreement in the British province, but this collapsed in January when Irish republicans Sinn Fein pulled out, citing a breakdown in trust.
An election in March saw the pro-British, Protestant, conservative DUP finish narrowly ahead of Catholic socialists Sinn Fein.
If the parties cannot agree on a deal, then devolution will be suspended and the Northern Irish assembly's powers returned to the UK government.
"There is very little time left. An agreement to restore devolved power-sharing government in Stormont must be reached by the June 29 deadline," said Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire.
Deal or no deal?
The DUP and Sinn Fein are taking part in Thursday's talks at Downing Street, along with smaller parties.
Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, said any deal between the Conservatives and the DUP "cannot be allowed to undermine" the province's peace accords.
Following talks inside, cross-community Alliance party leader Naomi Long said they were concerned about the Conservative-DUP arrangement.
May sought to give reassurances on neutrality but Long thought the government was "compromised" by the arrangement.
"In reality, the government is here simply because the DUP allow it to be so," Long said, according to the BBC.
Restoring devolved government in Belfast could protect Northern Ireland "from the worst effects of that arrangement," she said.
Brexit is another complicating factor in the mix.
A majority in Northern Ireland wanted the UK to remain in the European Union, though the DUP backed a divorce from the bloc.
Northern Ireland's frontier with the Republic of Ireland will be the UK's only land border with the EU after Brexit.
London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels all want to keep the border open, but no agreement has been reached.
Published Date: Jun 15, 2017 21:54 PM | Updated Date: Jun 15, 2017 21:56 PM